With Fall approaching, one of Texas’ most beautiful trees, the Texas Madrone reaches the height of its beauty as it puts forth its crop of beautiful red berries, often growing in hand-sized bunches and completely covering the tree. These lovely berries give the tree it’s first scientific name, “Arbutus,” which is a Latin word meaning “Strawberry Tree.” The name Madrone comes from the Spanish word madroño which means the same thing. In the winter, the combination of green, white, and red wood, bright green leaves, and large red berries makes this tree a joy to behold.
In the spring, the tree is covered with large bunches of urn-shaped, cream-colored flowers which fill the air with an exquisite fragrance.
Small groups and individual trees can be found in many places. For West Texans, the best place to see them is in the Chisos Mountains and the Guadalupe Mountains.
You can see many Madrones along the road to the Basin, but without doubt, the best place to find them is in the Guadalupe’s. There are surviving Madrones on the trail leading almost due north from the Pine Springs campground. These Madrones are atypical in that they grow mostly in isolation, giving this trail a distinctly “savannah” look and feel.
The Devil’s Den trail passes through stands of this tree, and is a beautiful visit any time of the year. But the very “best of the best” location is McKitrick Canyon.
In the shelter of this canyon, starting in early fall, the Maples begin to change color and Madrones line the trail with their fruit-laden branches. A fall hike through this canyon is an experience you will never forget. Trust me on this.
The Texas Madrone is not normally a large tree – it reaches 20 to 30 feet at the most. Madrones are usually multi-trunked with tortuously-shaped limbs that are smooth to the touch. The limbs spread out to give the tree a canopy of dark, leathery leaves that stay green year round. In the spring to mid-summer blooming season, the tree produces large clusters of creamy white, bell-shaped blossoms that fill the area with a delicious fragrance.
The velvety-smooth wood changes appearance throughout the year. In the spring it usually runs from white to a pale green though it may sometimes be a light burgundy.
As the year progresses, the old bark darkens into shades of brown and red and begins to peel off. As it falls away, it reveals the younger wood underneath which may be any color between white and bright red.
In fall, the tree puts out its crop of berries.
In the winter, the combination of green, white, and red wood, bright green leaves, and large red berries makes this tree a joy to behold.
Despite the Madrone’s great beauty, it is seldom seen by the general public. There are several reasons for this.
- The Madrone is a fairly rare tree in North America, growing only on the Edwards Plateau, in far West Texas, and in southeastern New Mexico.
- Its’ preference for montane habitats keeps it out of the view of the general public though hikers and backpackers are usually familiar with it.
- It is not very good at reproduction. The seedlings are palatable to deer so few seedlings survive to grow to maturity.
- It is extremely slow growing – it can take over a century for a Madrone to fully attain an adult height of 20 to 30 feet.
These factors, combined with declining habitat, rising temperatures, and decreasing rainfall are causing Madrone populations to decline.
It is fortunate that this tree is little used for utilitarian purposes. Native Americans considered the tree sacred and refused to burn it despite the excellent fire it provides. The wood is reddish-brown, hard, heavy, and close-grained. It is dimensionally stable, easily worked and it takes a fine polish; however, it is brittle and not very durable. In most of its historical applications, Madrone wood has been replaced by cheaper synthetic materials.
Madrones are more plentiful in Mexico than here, and they are used somewhat more. Leaves and bark are used as astringents and diuretics, bark and roots are used to make organic dyes, and the wood is sometimes used to make stirrups.
The berries are used most. Birds such as trogons, jays, and band-tailed pigeons eat them – Black Bears are quite fond of them.
If you hike in the Chisos you will see many madrones that carry deep scratch marks from the claws of bears climbing to get the fruit. Though the fruit tastes rather bland to modern palettes, it can be made into jellies and jams. The Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico make an alcoholic beverage from fermented Madrone berries and flavor tortillas with the tree’s flowers.
One would think that any tree this beautiful would be avidly cultivated, but that is not the case. Texas Madrones are notoriously difficult to plant and grow. Twenty years ago it was widely believed that it was impossible to grow one from seed, or to transplant one from the wild. In 1975, the Texas Horticulturalist magazine reported on an experiment that was conducted to try to germinate madrone seeds. Of the 10,000 seeds planted, researchers succeeded in germinating only 2 seeds.
In the past 20 to 30 years, growers have gotten better, and today a handful of nurseries, mostly in the Kerrville area, have mastered the business; fair-sized Madrones may now be purchased for home gardens.
We now know enough about this tree’s needs that amateur gardeners can reasonably expect to be able to grow them. Should you decide to try, here are a few facts you should keep in mind.
Seeds need to be planted shortly after harvesting. If they remain moist, germination can begin within 7 to 14 days. Once dried they rapidly lose fertility. After only 6 months of cold dry storage you can expect fewer than 40% of seeds to be fertile. After 2 years fertility drops to around 4%.
Seedlings grow best with a 12-hour photoperiod at daytime temperatures of 81 degrees and nighttime temperatures of 64 degrees. The soil should be well drained and run close to a neutral pH (6.8 to 7.2).
Good growth occurs at 60 to 70 percent relative humidity at a light intensity of 6,500 to 10,000 lux. At higher light intensities, growth may be reduced by photo-bleaching of chlorophyll, though high soil moisture may ameliorate this problem. Under ideal conditions you can expect germination rates of from 20% to 90%.
Madrones have a poorly developed fine root system and what they have is easily damaged. Worse, even slight damage to the root system is usually fatal to the tree. Growers should take every precaution to avoid root stress – this is not one of those trees you can take home, rip off the plastic bag, fluff up the roots and toss into a nice-sized hole. Rather, bags should be removed with the utmost care, the tree lowered into a hole of exactly the size of the root ball, and additional soil gently sifted over to fill the hole (no tamping please). Home growers may benefit from starting young trees in biodegradable containers that can be lowered into planting position without disturbing the tree’s roots.
Much remains to be learned about this fascinating tree, but its best hope for survival probably now lies with home horticulturalists who take the time to learn how to grow it, and who share their knowledge with others – without our help it is unlikely that this tree will continue to do well here in the northern Chihuahuan desert.